I’ve recently taught several wonderful classes on travel and adventure writing, during which my students often ask for reading recommendations. As a voracious reader myself, I love to talk about books — and as a writing teacher, I strongly support my autodidactic students. So I went through my notes from recent classes to compile this list of resources.
It’s not comprehensive, of course — it’s just the first ten books that came to mind. They’re not all textbooks about writing; there are books about confidence, links to my favorite TED talks, and a novel written by JJ Abrams. The list may seem disparate, but if you look closely there are consistent themes: the value of inquiry, the importance of finding your voice, the exquisite pleasure-pain that comes with commitment to art. Broadly speaking, these are books about leading a self-actualized life in which you prioritize and defend the space you need to create whatever art you choose.
As written by Twyla Tharp, who wrote the first book on this list: “Creativity is not just for artists. It’s for businesspeople looking for a new way to close a sale; it’s for engineers trying to solve a problem; it’s for parents who want their children to see the world in more than one way.”
This is my all-time favorite book about creativity, because dancer and Tony Award winner Twyla Tharp delivers a serious dose of no-nonsense advice. She’s a badass, and expounds on the power of art while firmly demystifying the creative process. In her words: “You may wonder which came first: the skill or the hard work. But that’s a moot point. The Zen master cleans his own studio. So should you.”
2. Presence, by Amy Cuddy.
In 2012, Harvard Professor and social psychologist Amy Cuddy released an incredible TED talk about how our body language affects not only how others see us, but can also change how we see ourselves. It’s about how “power posing” — standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident — can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain, and may even impact our chances for success. “When our body language is confident and open,” she says, “other people respond in kind, unconsciously reinforcing not only their perception of us but also our perception of ourselves.”
In Presence, Cuddy dives deeply into the science and research behind her TED talk, and illustrates specific ways for readers to use that knowledge. This is my favorite revelation: “After meticulously analyzing videos of 185 venture capital presentations — looking at both verbal and nonverbal behavior — [scientists] ended up with results that surprised [them]: the strongest predictor of who got the money was not the person’s credentials or the content of the pitch. The strongest predictors of who got the money were these traits: confidence, comfort level, and passionate enthusiasm.”
3. The Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary.
It doesn’t matter whether you buy the 20-volume hardback edition, the Kindle e-reader, or the OED website. What does matter, though, is that you understand the words you’re using when you write. Art demands precision, and as a writer you should respect and understand every word that you choose.
5. The Signs and Symbols Sourcebook, by Adele Nozedar.
I bought an earmarked copy of this quirky tome at the Pilgrim’s Bookstore in Kathmandu, and I’m frequently surprised at how often I flip through it. It’s organized in an easy-to-reference A-to-Z format, and it’s all about the meanings behind the important visual symbols in the world. There are sections on magic and mystery, deities and rituals, the animal and plant kingdom, landscape and the elements, and food and drink. You can read about the Masonic Compass, the Glastonbury Zodiak, and just about anything else you could imagine. It’s not a comprehensive dictionary, but it’s a very useful resource.
When Carnegie Mellon Professor of Economics Linda Babcock asked why so many male graduate students were teaching their own courses and most female students were assigned as assistants, her dean said: “More men ask. The women just don’t ask.” So Babcock wrote a book about why women don’t ask, how much that matters, and what we can all learn about negotiation.
This isn’t a book about writing, obviously. But it is about learning to find and trust your voice, fighting for what you believe, and recognizing how important it is to cultivate a practice of speaking up. Those lessons are valuable in writing — and in life.
7. Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by Austin Kleon.
From the introduction: “It’s one of my theories that when people give advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past. This book is me talking to a previous version of myself. These are things I’ve learned over almost a decade of trying to figure out how to make art, but a funny thing happened when I started sharing them with others — I realized that they aren’t just for artists. They’re for everyone.”
(Check out Austin Kleon’s TED Talk, too.)
8. S, by JJ Abrams.
This novel is weird, and that’s exactly why I love it. It’s a mystery — but the way it’s structured plays with the boundaries of print and storytelling. The book is made to look and feel like an old hardcover novel that’s been stolen from a library, and there are extensive “hand-written” notes in the margins. As you read, you’ll find other things stuck into the pages — post cards, newspaper clippings, napkins with hand-drawn maps. It feels very voyeuristic, and the reader gets to play sleuth, so it’s a very fun read. But it’s also an interesting book to think about from a writer’s perspective, because Abrams (and his co-writer, Doug Dorst) are playing with the boundaries of storytelling and publishing.
9. The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard.
“Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality? […] Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking.”
10. The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron.
This book is about faith and art and life, and I turn to it when I need encouragement. “Leap,” Cameron writes, “and the net will appear.”
Again, this isn’t a comprehensive list — it’s just a beginning. If you have suggestions for similar resources, I’d love to hear them: firstname.lastname@example.org. The photo at the top of the page is courtesy of Bryan Aulick.